Conquering the Last Frontier: How Senator Mark Begich and the Democrats can win Alaska

Senator Mark Begich and his challenger Dan Sullivan will combine for at least 34,000 ads by the end of this election cycle. Together, they will spend more than $60 million, and ring every doorbell and stuff every mailbox in Anchorage. The 2014 midterm election cycle is shaping up to be the most expensive non-presidential election in history and Alaska is playing no small part in that. At the end of the day on November 4, it will all have been for just 250,000 votes in the country’s fourth least populous state.

Since Alaska’s former attorney general Dan Sullivan won the GOP primary in August, the Republican base has been eager to throw their support behind the candidate in an effort to oust Senator Mark Begich. The good news for Begich is that in a state where registered Republican voters outnumber registered Democratic voters two to one, Sullivan is leading by just low single-digits in the polls. In addition to that, Begich has two other factors working in his favor in an election cycle that is expected to be difficult for Democrats.

The first is in the form of two little-known candidates: Mark Fish, a Libertarian candidate, and Ted Gianoutsos, an independent. Alaska has traditionally been more independent of the two major political parties, and non-affiliated or third party candidates have historically done better in Alaska than in most other states. Most polls have just included Begich and Sullivan, but Fish and Gianoutsos both have the potential to draw away votes, especially from Sullivan. Gianoutsos is running a type of single-issue campaign based on opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but he is also for opening and expanding oil pipelines, opposed to “human induced global warming guilt,” and against federal overreach in Alaska. Mark Fish is running on a typical libertarian platform, which does resonate among Alaskan voters, but he has failed to prove himself different enough from the two leading candidates and has been drowned under national party fundraising. Nevertheless, both of these candidates have the potential to draw away key votes from both candidates, but especially Dan Sullivan. In such a small state, that could make the difference.

The second factor working in Begish’s favor is Alaska’s unique geography. Over half the state’s population resides in Anchorage, Fairbanks, or Juneau, and only the latter has a substantial Democratic base. The other half of the population is spread across the vast, remote areas of northern and western Alaska. The difficulty of campaigning in Alaska is well known to Begich—his father, Alaska’s previous congressman, died in a plane crash while campaigning for reelection— however as the incumbent and recipient of national party money, his campaign has the resources and institutional will to expand into those remote and difficult to reach areas. These are the same areas that voted for President Obama in 2012 and Mark Begich in 2008. Since social services are difficult to access from these places, federal money and entitlements are important. The “Bush” (the collective name given to remote villages and areas outside of Alaska’s few urban areas) benefits greatly from Medicare and Obamacare, and the GOP messaging this cycle has frightened them.

Alaska is one of ten states receiving money from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s Bannock Street Project, a $60 million get-out-the-vote initiative in battleground states that seeks to turn out young, minority, and female voters, groups that historically vote less in midterm elections. If this project is capable of shaping the electorate to look more like 2008 than 2010, then Senator Begich has a real chance of holding his seat.

Alaska undoubtedly remains a red state, however the edges are blue. For the first time in the state’s history, over 40% of Alaskans voted for the Democrat in the presidential election in 2012. Senator Begich is facing a very qualified candidate in Dan Sullivan, but the polls do not necessarily tell the whole story. This election, which has seen unprecedented amounts of money spent in the country’s largest state, will ultimately come down to small numbers. If the two additional candidates are able to pull some Republican votes away from Dan Sullivan and if the Begich campaign can capitalize on its advantage in the Bush, then Alaska has a chance to surprise us on election day.

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